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Joseph Groia

LSO annual general meeting shows pandemic, equity challenges facing law society going forward

Wednesday, August 12, 2020 @ 9:37 AM | By Ian Burns

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the professional and personal lives of lawyers and paralegals, but the Law Society of Ontario (LSO) is in a good position to deal with the fallout — that was the message arising from the society’s 2020 annual general meeting (AGM) as the profession met virtually for a meeting which had been forced to change its original date.

The AGM had originally been scheduled for May 13 but it was later rescheduled for Aug. 10. LSO treasurer Teresa Donnelly highlighted law society action on legal aid and professional competence in 2019 but also outlined the steps the law society has taken steps to deal with the pandemic since it hit in March, including the deferral of deadlines for regulatory requirements, developing COVID-19 guidance to the profession and moving to an online delivery of exams for lawyer licensing candidates.

LSO treasurer Teresa Donnelly

“Like all members of the legal community the law society has had to bend and serve in ways it could never have anticipated, and there have been many things we have learned throughout the process,” she said. “As a profession we have responded to this extraordinary event with collegiality, collaboration, innovation and ingenuity. The task the months and years ahead will be to ensure that we leverage these learnings to advance the cause of justice and the rule of law but we also need to take care of ourselves, and the mental health and well-being of our licensees is a priority for me.”

Audit and finance committee chair Joseph Groia said the LSO’s 2019 financial statements were “better than projected” and the society started 2020 in a financially strong position.

“It is clear COVID-19 will have a material effect on the society’s finances and operations for a considerable period of time. However, it is also clear the society has sufficient liquidity and fund balances to manage through the crisis in 2020,” he said. “The committee and management are closely monitoring the effect COVID-19 will have on the society’s finances going forward and we are well positioned and determined to respond to these challenges as required.”

LSO audit and finance committee chair Joseph Groia

But Donnelly also said the law society’s work in other areas continues despite the pandemic, in particular discussions surrounding racism and injustice in the profession. She noted that 2019 saw benchers implement a requirement for licensees to acknowledge their responsibilities to respect Ontario human rights laws — a requirement which replaced the contentious statement of principles.

“As we integrate insights from the pandemic into the practice of law we must also remain focused on the importance of increasing the representation of racialized licensees and members of equity-seeking communities and improve access to justice for the people of Ontario,” she said. “Too many lawyers and paralegals face barriers for the wrong reasons, their race, religion or sexual orientation. Barriers to the law profession are a disservice to licensees but also to the people of Ontario who require diverse legal professionals to serve them, and if we don’t address the current and potential barriers we fail our justice system, our clients and our society.”

Three motions which had been submitted to the AGM for consideration were withdrawn and sent back to the LSO’s committees for study. Motions had been proposed on promoting efficiency and protecting public health, increasing participation of licensing candidates in bencher elections and to increase student voices on the professional development and competence committee.

LSO representatives also fielded questions from the profession, with a number of concerns raised about two motions approved in principle at last week’s Convocation regarding the removal of annual fee exemptions for licensees who are over 65 years of age and who do not practise law or provide legal services and for life members, who are people who have been lawyers for 50 years or more. Donnelly noted both motions had been referred to committee and would come back to Convocation at a later date, likely in the fall.

But ex-officio bencher Bob Aaron was not pleased with the way those concerns were dealt with. He said he felt the meeting should have been held on videoconference platform such as Zoom because he said he no idea on whether there was a quorum at the meeting.

“And if there was an in-person meeting the questioners could have stood up and said their piece, but that didn’t happen and the treasurer took it upon herself to summarize the questions,” he said. “The questioners should have had some ability to have their questions read out in full rather than have the treasurer summarize them. There is one person who submitted apparently a number of questions who if it were an in-person meeting would have been standing on his or her feet until the questions are answered, but that person was cut off. That’s no way to run an annual general meeting.”

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